Genre : Action
Developer: Totally Games
Release Date: November 18, 2003
Pre-order 'SECRET WEAPONS OVER NORMANDY': PC
The videogame industry’s unannounced war against Nazi Germany continues in Totally Games’s Secret Weapons Over Normandy, yet another way in which you can oppose the German war machine sixty years after the fact. At the rate we’re going, any given gamer who owns any given console will be able to claim that, over the course of his video game career, he has killed more Nazi soldiers than there technically were.
This time, you’re James Chase, a slightly befuddled American and an ace pilot. In the summer of 1940, when Britain is besieged by Germany, you’re sent across the pond to join a secret aerial attack squadron called the Battle Hawks. Equipped with an experimental Hurricane fighter plane, you’ll be called upon to fight the Nazis alone, or as part of an aerial unit. Equipped with your trusty machine guns and five-hundred-pound bombs, you’ll often be the only thing standing between the British army and outright defeat at the hands of the Germans.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, but not overly so. The setup here is the justification for the British command sending you and the occasional wingman up against what’re often five-to-one odds, shooting down countless bombers and their fighter escorts. Your missions will take you high above occupied France, Britain, and Germany, mostly along the coastline; get ready to see entire coastal cities, and the anti-aircraft batteries lining the bad side of the English Channel, rolling above you as you swoop and dive to avoid incoming gunfire. Whether you’re fighting a squadron of Panzers rolling through the English countryside, or participating in a daring midnight raid against a strategic airfield on the French coast, you’ll be far too busy to admire the scenery.
The first thing that I thought, looking at the game, is that it’s a flight sim. It’s not. Instead, it’s a third-person air shooter with more than a token nod to realism. If you screw around too much in the air, your engine will stall; you have to lead your targets for some distance in order to hit them; landing the plane requires a very light touch indeed; the planes are finely and accurately modeled; and the British airmen are emotionally distant and somewhat condescending. It’s so real!
More importantly, your plane is a decidedly fragile thing, resulting in most dogfights being short-lived and violent affairs. Fortunately, you frequently have wingmen to watch your back. While you don’t get to command your fellow pilots until later in the game, your fighter escort is comprised of crack British pilots. It’s a testament to the game’s AI that you’re usually more of a danger to them, than they are to you. It’s easy to fall into suspension of disbelief, and operate on the assumption that that annoyed voice on your radio actually is an irritated British pilot named Trevor.
The dogfights are maybe the single best reason to take a look at Secret Weapons, but ground combat plays an important role too. Whether the opposition dirtside are anti-aircraft guns, Panzer tanks, or unarmed German reconnaissance vehicles (heh heh heh), you’ll usually have to deal with them via the application of high explosives. Dropping bombs is a lot easier than it looks, at first blush, as you can switch the camera to an overhead view. Match a red targeting reticule up with the yellow bombing crosshair and hit R2, and odds are, whatever you just hit is a funny smell and a bad memory. Your plane can never carry quite as many bombs as you’d like it to, though, and the smaller bombs are often surprisingly difficult to use. It’s still a rush, diving straight at a ground-based target, dropping your ordinance, and swooping away at the last possible second; I’ve cut it so close that the altimeter hit 0001. Obviously, this is only a trick you can pull in lighter planes, as you’ll face-plant if you try that in, say, a Junker 88 bomber.
Speaking of that, you can unlock quite a few extra jets over the course of Secret Weapons. While you start the game with your Hurricane, you can earn other planes for your hangar during missions and in bonus stages. For example, you’ll earn the right to fly a Spitfire if you can defeat Trevor in a mock dogfight; and a salvaged Junker 88 bomber is yours for winning the second mission in campaign mode. Each of the planes come with their own advantages and disadvantages, of course, but you also earn requisitions forms for victory, which can be traded in to adjust the capabilities of an existing plane.
Not all of the game’s campaign missions are set in the air, either. You’ll also be called upon to fly the salvaged bomber into French airspace, as a sort of aerial stealth mission (I cannot believe I was just asked to “sneak” behind German lines in a large-ass ugly steel bombing plane; it’s like trying to creep into a military base dressed as a circus clown), as well as arm the anti-aircraft guns yourself when the Germans threaten your home base, among other missions. A game like this could easily fall back on the intensity of the aerial combat and call it a day, but Secret Weapons has the intelligence to throw different kinds of fighting into the mix.
This is one of those games that comes along every so often to draw a line between realism and gameplay, adding a bit of the former while sacrificing none of the latter. I didn’t think I’d like the game, but Totally Games has won me over with relatively tight controls, good graphics, and an intense challenge level that skates up to the edge of, but not quite to, being ridiculous. I’m officially impressed; and I’m fairly sure that you will be too, when Secret Weapons Over Normandy launches on November 18th.
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